A brief cultural history of sex

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Some things never change but sex isn't one of them. Marcus Field looks back on some surprising episodes in the centuries-long evolution of Western sexual attitudes, from the ancient Greeks to the present day


Let's start with the Greeks

Aphrodisiac, eroticism, homosexuality, narcissism, nymphomania, pederasty all these terms are derived from the language of ancient Greece which tells you something about its society. The myths of Homer and Plutarch told stories such as that of Aphrodite, goddess of sexual intercourse, who emerged from the foaming semen of her father's castrated testicles. Then there were the mortal heroes such as Hercules, who it is said ravished 50 virgins in a single night, but who also had an affair with his nephew Iolaus and fell in love with "sweet Hylas, he of the curling locks".

From the early 6th century to the early 4th century, the culture of pederasty flourished in Athens, with adult men taking adolescent boys to serve as their lovers (although how much physical sex actually happened is a matter of some debate). Women in ancient Greece were generally the property of men and rarely enjoyed the exalted status of the young homosexual partner. But we know that there was a strong culture of female prostitution, with the most successful courtesans often wielding power and wealth and with brothels paying a state tax on their profits. Neglected wives found ways to satisfy their desires. Lesbians (called tribades) certainly existed, and the culture is associated most particularly with the island of Lesbos "where burning Sappho loved and sung". There are also plenty of literary references to the use of dildos, which in ancient Greece were made of padded leather and anointed with olive oil before use.



And then along came the Romans...

In Rome, as elsewhere in the ancient world, wives and children belonged to the man of the family. A woman caught in the act of adultery could be killed by her husband on the spot, while a wife who drank more than a moderate amount of wine gave grounds for divorce. Despite this, the orgiastic culture of legend certainly existed during the Bacchanalian festivals, when all restraint was abandoned. Such was the hedonism and lawlessness of these rites, with rampant couplings of both heterosexual and homosexual nature, that public worship of Bacchus was finally outlawed in 186 BCE. Prostitution was widespread and legal, and the Greek tradition of pederasty was significant enough to cause concern when the Roman birth rate dropped. Much attention was given to the development of contraception.

Pliny recommended "mouse dung applied in the form of a liniment" or pigeon droppings mixed with oil and wine. Much more successful was the method devised by the gynaecologist Soranus of Ephesus who suggested a wool plug for the uterus impregnated with gummy substances. However, it is more likely that outbreaks of plague and disease led to the catastrophic fall in the population of the Roman empire than the success of primitive contraception.



The Word is God

According to Reay Tannahill's book Sex in History the years between 400AD and 1000AD saw Christian morality gain a grip on Western thought "so paralyzing that it is only now beginning to relax". Many of its rules regarding sex originate in the Hebrew law of the Old Testament and were fixed firm for over 1,500 years, with threats of hellfire proving one of the most successful deterrents ever invented. Lust and sex became associated with the original sin of Adam and Eve and the celibate life was promoted for those with the most godly minds. An indication of how poorly early Christians viewed sex is the fact that they declared Jesus to have been conceived without carnal contact.

Incest, masturbation, oral sex, anal sex and homosexuality were all deemed sinful and punishable by the Christian church with increasing severity. Sex within marriage was tolerated for reproductive purposes only and contraception banned because of its associations with pleasure. We know little of how these rules affected the lives of ordinary people, but the threat of damnation almost certainly transformed sex into activity loaded with fear and danger.



Renaissance pleasures

The spread of syphilis to epidemic proportions across Europe in the 16th century reveals that many men and women were not as chaste as the Church would have liked. Prostitution was large-scale across the continent (there were 7,000 public women in Rome in 1490) and the brothels of Southwark in London were notorious. The Church accepted the situation as a necessary evil, arguing that at least sin was contained. But times were definitely changing. Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture reveals the rediscovery of the art of antiquity, when the naked flesh of men and women were worshipped and enjoyed rather than regarded as sinful. Homosexuality was tolerated in certain areas and classes, among artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo for example, and even in the court of James I in London where the king paraded his lover, the Duke of Buckingham, in public.

Although a Buggery Act was introduced for the first time in 1533, making sodomy between men punishable by death, it was rarely acted upon. Indeed, the homosexual Duke of Sutherland was able to rise to the position of Prime Minister in the early 18th century and only forced to resign when satirical stories were published about the gay sex club he had established. Enlightenment literature, in novels such as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and, most strongly, in the novels of the Marquis de Sade, outlined the dangers and excitements of sexual perversion and reveal the extent to which sex had moved away from the guilt-laden act of the Middle Ages to become an intoxicating if risky source of pleasure.



Vice and the Victorians

A combination of overt gentility and ignorance turned the 19th century into the most rotten age there has ever been for sexuality. In Britain the ideal of the middle-class wife, safely installed with her family in a bourgeois home, was the universal ideal. But the repression of natural urges led to a dark underground world of debauchery and vice. As the purity of the wifely figure was promoted (once-a-month sex was generally considered enough), prostitution became more widespread than ever before. In 1839, in London, a city of two million inhabitants, there were estimated to be around 80,000 prostitutes. Later in the century Prime Minister William Gladstone found the problem so pressing that he would walk the streets himself at night and counsel these working girls. Some courtesans, Lillie Langtry for example, reached the highest echelons of society and even managed to retain an air of respectability. But venereal disease was rife and syphilis spread wildly between prostitutes, their clients and their clients' families (Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, is a well-known example).

Thus, "clean" virgins became a highly desirable commodity, although faking it was so easy that by the 1880s the price had dropped from 100 earlier in the century to just 5 a session. Homosexuals had generally enjoyed a period of tolerance until 1885 when the Criminal Law Amendment Act stated that gross indecency between men would be punishable by two years' imprisonment. It was this law, known as the "blackmailer's charter", under which Oscar Wilde was convicted in 1895 and which remained on the statute books until 1967. Indeed the whole confused and hypocritical attitude of the Victorians towards sexuality had long-lasting repercussions.



Modern life and 'the joy of sex'

Not until after the Second World War did any real cracks begin to show in the Victorian moral code. The freedom many men and women felt as war workers made it hard to go back to the old life once peace came. This is illustrated by the Kinsey Reports of 1948 which found that 69 per cent of men in the US had visited prostitutes, 50 per cent of husbands had been unfaithful to their wives, and that 37 per cent of men and 17 per cent of women had had at least one homosexual experience. During the 1960s many old ideas were swept away by what we now call the sexual revolution. The introduction of easily available contraception in the form of the Pill gave women more control and allowed them to indulge in sex for pleasure, often with multiple partners.

In 1972, Alex Comfort's book The Joy of Sex was published and soon became the best-selling manual for a new generation. But the arrival of the lethal Aids virus in the West had a huge impact on the idea of free love in the 1980s. Since the virus can be transmitted by sex, it's no surprise to hear that a common reaction of the public, summed up by a letter to Time magazine in 1988, was a call to return to "the God-fearing moral standard of yesterday". But could conservatives ever effectively re-invoke the deterrent of hellfire? It's a losing battle. New figures from the World Health Organisation show that 39 per cent of girls in Britain have underage sex, and 34 per cent of boys the highest rates in Europe. We might not approve, but the sexual revolution goes on.

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